Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A Reflection on Superbowl Commercials Gone By

I'm fascinated by the public reaction to the Groupon Superbowl commercials (,, As is often the case with controversial art, it's the reaction which is more fruitful and interesting to explore, and which sheds greater light on the art object itself.

There are a few concepts I'd like to touch on to assure we have the same vocabulary going into this discussion.

1. There is a linguistic and conceptual conflation in our culture between Good-Desirable and Good-Meritorious. Ice cream is the former, charity is the latter.
2. There are acts which are moral (charity), acts which are immoral (murder) and acts which are morally neutral (a touchdown).
3. I'd like to potentially misuse the concept of the 'signifier' in the following way: when I say that something 'signifies' a concept, I mean that its first and primary resonance for the observer is not the thing itself, but the concept. What I mean is - when an American hears 'Tibet' in this context, what is signified is not the geographical area in its particulars, but the concept of charitable fundraising.

Ok let's get into this.

The first thing I would like to aggressively dismiss is this notion which is perennially thrown around that some things 'cannot be joked about.'  Comedy is another way to speak about the world; some jokes are good and some jokes are bad - certainly some jokes are tasteless (depending on context and audience) - but to say that there are things in the world about which one MAY NOT JOKE is incoherent. It's like saying that there's something about which we cannot ask questions, or about which our voices may not be raised above a whisper. It's crippling and it's terrible; throw it out.

Jokes ARE about suffering. They ARE about what is 'wrong' with humanity. It has been ever thus, and must be.

Now, immediately, we're all thinking about exceptions. We're all thinking about the Holocaust. Certainly, I heard plenty of alternative commercials proposed (something about the Superbowl ads really encouraged parallel suggestions) featuring Holocaust references advertising bagel joints. I agree that these aren't funny - why?

Because: 'The Holocaust' is just as emptied of immediate genuine significance as 'Tibet' is for modern Americans, but rather than 'charitable giving,' it has been filled with the signification: 'abomination.' It's not a horrible thing; it's The Horrible Thing. The-most-serious-awful-thing placeholder. Consequently, jokes which use the Holocaust that way can be funny, but trying to slot them in for Tibet or "the rainforest" won't work at all.

This brings us to the subjects of these commercials in particular. 'Tibet,' 'the rainforest,' and 'the whales.' They signify charitable fundraising; we understand them as such. Is it distasteful to empty them of their genuine, specific tragedy and instead take advantage of the role they play in America's dialogue with itself? Mm, maybe. I can understand that. But the fact is, they have been so emptied, and Groupon's ads did nothing but take advantage of that fact. Using them as interchangeable signifiers is nothing new - genuine charitable appeals have glossed over the troublesome realities of referring to all rain forests as 'the rainforest' and assuring they they were 'saving' them for decades.

Of course, it's easier to say that it doesn't matter whether we're dismissing and 'disrespecting' climate zones and sea mammals. It's harder to reconcile 'disrespect' to actual people. This is why there was so much more anger about the Tibet ad than the others.
But, of course, the reality of the situation is quite the opposite of the concern expressed by those worried about disrespect. We routinely joke about the most respected figures (politicians, priests, etc) BECAUSE they are in positions of respect. People who 'cannot be joked about' are not more respected. It's an insult to them to worry that they can't take it.

But, moreover - Tibet has more important things to worry about than the respect of an internet deal company. When we say 'you can't joke about those people,' is anyone honestly imagining that a Tibetan person will hear that they were the butt of a joke and got their feelings hurt? I assert no. It's just a vague feeling of discomfort with the subject matter.

This vague anxiety springs from the looming recognition of our own immorality, and the confusing form of the joke itself. We expect commercials to be unsurprising and reassuring - to solidify the conflation of Desirable and Meritorious into Good. Saving money is Good - and to challenge what that means makes people uncomfortable. The Groupon ads starkly showcased the fact that saving money is not meritorious - it's just desirable.

We see something which looks like an appeal to our virtue. Then, suddenly, it shifts to an appeal to our greed. We are made to realize that satisfying greed is not virtue. Almost every other commercial is unwilling to point that out. Most ads don't explore the way in which saving money, or looking thin, or smelling nice, are inherently selfish motives. They are simply goods, and we all want what is good - though in this case, it is only good FOR US. Advertising is amoral, and the Groupon ads made sure you knew that.

The problem - if there was a problem - was that Groupon "justified" their strategy by also making the ads a sincere opportunity for charity. They offered to match any donation to the causes featured as Causes. It's as though Groupon picked the three most empty charitable signifiers and said 'hey, if we can use the way Whale and Tibet rings in the American ear, we'll give you some real money.' At issue iis the public knowledge of Superbowl advertising costs. The million-dollar-plus price tag is common knowledge - it's part of the conversation. Given that, to offer the opportunity for charitable giving to the audience - rather than giving a comparable amount of money to the causes Groupon coopted - feels like the cheapest available option to deflect criticism. Again - this is amoral. No harm is being done. Bit this move, admittedly, seems insincere.

It has been pointed out elsewhere (and in a much timelier fashion) that it is bizarre to criticize these Groupon ads while tolerating the uninterrupted stream of sexist, consumerist images which flows through the rest of the Big Game. I certainly agree. What interests me is the way in which the Groupon ads played with confronting the amorality of the stream around them, and would up really upsetting people in the process.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The King and the Commander - a post script

'M'lord? He's here.'

'Thank you, Denise. Give me a moment, then send him in.' Eric rose from his office chair, slotting a long, plumed quill into its well. It had been a brief morning so far, but already his hands, more accustomed to hauling nets and holding reins, were spattered with ink. He would need to ask Grimsby for remedial lessons in how to hold the thing - but after this conversation, he expected even that humiliation would hold no fear.

He had put it off long enough. Too long, if you asked his wife. His Queen. There were compromises in every marriage, but this... well. It was what it was, and there was nothing to be done now.

He positioned himself between his massive desk, carved from a single, sea-worn piece of driftwood. The curling prominences lent a horned flair to his shadow as it stretched before him. His father had loved the piece when it was presented by a master carver years ago. 'If it's not baroque!' he used to say, laughing, never finishing the joke. The old King had taught him this pose - the respectful greeting, rising from the seat of power, but never letting them forget that this was his place, that they were visiting.

He had always tried to show the same gratitude and deference when he was brought before a captain on his ship. Though he was a prince, on board a galley the captain was king. Eric had always understood that.

The door opened. Commander Brum, First of the Fleet, had come in formal dress complete with chain of office, fish-and-ship insignia laid out in mother of pearl and blue enamel. His windburned skin stood in stark contrast to the immaculate, barely-worn linen. Clearly he knew of what they would be speaking. Trust a sailor to know which way the wind was blowing.

"My Lord." He stood stiff as a mast, meeting the King's eye as few men were permitted.

"Commander. Phillip. It's good to see you." Eric extended his hand and found it enclosed in Brum's massive fist. Here, at least, the Commander allowed himself some irregularity; traditionally silk gloves would have enclosed these paws, but not for Brum. "Please. Have a seat." 

Eric circled his desk, turning in time to see his old friend creaking into the chair opposite, also carved from wood given by the waves. He sat, laying his hands across the desk, bracing for what was to come. "You know, I think, the position in which we find ourselves."

Brum inclined his head, neck straining against collar. "Aye, my Lord. I hear of it."

Eric sighed. Brum didn't intend to spare him any difficulty. "It is clear that, following recent revelations and my marriage, we cannot continue to conduct business as we have. It will be a difficult transition, and I intend to make all necessary support available to you and your men. And their families, of course."

"I think, my Lord, that you ought to tell me exactly what you mean." The old sailor kept his flint eyes on Eric. He had first met the young prince when Eric could hardly walk, keeping his hand on the back of his royal jumper as he toddled up the plank to the deck of a ship. 'I'll make a man out of you,' he had rumbled. Eric could still remember all of that cold day. He was owed the respect of an order. 

Eric rose. "As of today, when the evening catch is brought in, the fishing trade in the kingdom is officially ended. To make this transition clear, all fishing vessels are to remain at harbor for a week, at which time they are released to their owners and captains. Beginning tomorrow, anyone caught extending line, net, or spear with the intention of harming a creature of the sea will be brought before the King for our justice. The penalty will be not less than forfeiture of property and imprisonment. Let it be know - as Commander of the Fleet, you are expected to communicate the following to your men:" here, Eric retrieved the spattered paper and read, "'the Kingdom will not tolerate violence unto the bodies of fish, crabs, birds, the mer-people, or any others who make their homes on or beneath the ocean, for the purpose of food or otherwise. We find these acts abhorrent, and do hereby commit ourselves to their end.'" He settled the paper once again upon the wood.

Brum's mouth was a tight white line. His eyes were bright. "Eric. Your Majesty. You cannot do this."

"I must do this, Philip. You know I must. Think - how could I allow my kingdom to continue slaughtering the countryme... country... well, the compatriots of my Queen?"

"The fishing trade, and your fleet, has always been the heart of the kingdom. You cannot cut it out. The nation will die."

"It certainly will not. Trust in me. King Triton has offered up the bounty of the deeps to us. They have gold - more gold than they know what to do with - and will gladly share it with us, not to mention guaranteed safe passage across any waterway on Earth for any ship flying our flag. We will be the most powerful kingdom in the world, Brum, as long as we are willing to compromise."

"Compromise!" Brum was on his feet. The struggle to compose himself was visible in the color of his face, the straining tendons of his fists. "You speak of compromise, and yet you ask my men to give away everything!"

"They will be well compensated for their sacrifice. Indeed, they will not need to work another day in their lives if they choose - "

"Eric! My King! Do you hear what you're saying? To take away a man's livelihood, his work, and commit him to a life of suckling at the teat of the kingdom... you must see that you're feeding us poison and calling it cream. I... I cannot, my Lord, I am sorry, I -"

"Enough." Eric sat. "You will. You must see that there is no way to continue as we have. Now that we know that every fish, every crab, every screeching gull has a life? Has a spirit? Has a NAME? My God, Phillip, what monsters would we be to go on eating?"

Brum slammed his fists upon the great table. "It sounds to me, my Lord, that you are as bewitched by this siren as you were by t'other. To give up our trade for one true love's kiss? The men already whisper that you would keep the fish meals off our plates and in your bed. Just because you have had your head turned by a... a salted hag - !"

"Stop!" The word rang in the room. "You have said too much already, but I will forget it if you stop, right now, agree, and leave this room. If another word against Ariel leaves your mouth, I remind you that you are not only speaking against a beautiful woman, who sacrificed everything in her life for me, not only against the savior of our kingdom, and not only against my love, but against your Queen. An act of foul treason for which I will absolutely take your head." 

Brum's mouth curled - whether he intended to speak, or was only flinching against this unprecedented speech from his once-loved Prince, Eric did not intend to learn. "Do not doubt me, Commander. Speak against your Queen again. To me, here, or to your men, whispering in the hold of some ship leagues across the sea, and know what will happen. I will take your head and hang any conspirators for treason. Plan a... fisherman's revolt, if you will. But be sure you do it in a place where no fish swim outside, no gulls wheel overhead, and not even a sea snail might have fit through a crack to listen, and report. Do you understand me, Brum? Say 'yes,' turn, and leave this room."

Brum seemed smaller, now. Older. "Yes." He walked away, and rested his hand upon the handle of the door. "M'lord."

"Yes? You may speak."

"What about the other meat, sir? The deer in the forests, the foxes? For God's sake, the dogs, the cats, the mice? Do we... well, are they... people?"

Eric ran his fingertips across his forehead, where the gold met his brow. This was not a new thought to him. Of course Brum would have considered it. He was a good man, caught in a tide none of them could have expected. "No. No, Brum. King Triton tells me that the beasts of the land have no more tongue or culture than our cutlery, or a child's toy."

"Well. We can thank God for that, then. At least I've had a few meals in my life that I don't need to think back on as... cannibalism. My Lord." And Commander Brum closed the door behind him.

In the quiet and emptiness of his room Eric poured a brandy and picked at the rabbit quiche left from breakfast. The new chef would learn, he was sure. They would all need to learn a great deal, and quickly.